A Roman Holiday

Discovering the Eternal City’s secret spots one step at a time

On The Town | Lena Natraval | June 2011

There are many clichés about Rome. First of all, it’s chaos: Nothing gets done; shops and offices are always closed when you need them; drivers stop in the middle of the street while cars are left parked on the sidewalks; and loquacious taxi drivers will drive you all around town to an address you discover is just around the corner. Besides that, it’s crowded.

So I stepped off my short flight from Vienna on a Thursday evening, resigned to the one-hour wait for the luggage, and the chatty cabby who charged 35 Euros for a ten-minute ride and then parked his taxi right on a crosswalk, as another 10 cars sat honking in frustration. I didn’t have the energy to protest. It had been a long day and I was exhausted. I registered, collected my key and headed for my room. It was nearly midnight by the time I set out again to find a late dinner.

Moments later, my fatigue vanished.

The Best Western Hotel Astrid was near Via Flaminia, about 900 meters north of Piazza del Popolo, a good starting point for discovering this city on the River Tiber. After a brisk and rainy walk, I discovered a small restaurant, poorly  lit, but with a charming pastoral flare and friendly staff inviting us in: La Friseria. Here was the real thing, genuine Italian cuisine in an unpretentious atmosphere and a wide choice of dishes from traditional Italian bruscetta to gnocchi, pasta, pizza and homemade tiramisu. My heart was won over; my stomach was pleasantly full as I strolled back to the hotel and a good night’s sleep. I had two full days, not nearly enough, but I would make the most of it.

I began at the Piazza del Popolo, a 10-minute walk from my hotel. Built by Gaius Flaminius about 220 BC, it is one of the oldest streets in Rome, leading in from Rimini on the Adriatic Sea. It’s hard to miss because of the obelisk, the first thing I saw when I got to Piazza del Popolo – a common feature in Rome, this one brought back from Egypt by the Emperor Augustus in the 10th century – and the lovely church Santa Maria del Popolo.

Almost all of the distances in Rome are walk-able – my preferred way – but if you have too much to carry (or have had one grappa too many!), there are two metro lines and many trams that get you back safely. There is also a "Roma Pass" for €25 per person, which includes a three-day pass on all public transit, plus free admission to most of the well-known sights, and discounts at other points of interests. Even though I normally refrain from such "tourist-packages" with the "Roma Pass" I really got my money’s worth.

Rome is a city of legend. Founded by the twins Romulus and Remus, descended from Aeneas, and populated by refugees and outlaws and the Sabine women, abducted from the neighboring tribes and won over with the offer of equal civil and property rights, and the promise that they would be mothers of free men.  Once the capital of the Roman Empire, and home to the seat of Popes in the Vatican, it has earned its title as The Eternal City, surviving countless wars and upheavals with a special blend of grandeur and humanity. Hollywood discovered it in the 1950s, making it a character in classic movies like Roman Holiday (1953) starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn), Arrivederci Roma (1957) with Mario Lanza, and Ben Hur (1959) with Charlton Heston. English readers can discover the city in The Seasons of Rome: A Journal by Vienna-born Paul Hofmann, for 35 years a foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

Or in translation, Johann W. von Goethe’s discovery of Rome recorded in his Italian Journey, or Alberto Moravia’s fine novel The Woman of Rome. Or of course, the ancients, Virgil, Cato, Ovid or Cicero.

But best of all, perhaps, is simply to discover things for yourself, by walking around the city, letting yourself be carried by whim to see where you end up. I made my way through the streets of Rome from espresso to espresso and from coffee bar to cafè and taking in the atmosphere off the beaten track.

Still, I didn’t want to miss the highlights, so I also took the elevator up the Monumento Vittorio Emmanuele II, called the "Typewriter," (because it actually looks like one; another nickname is "The Wedding Cake") to soak in the magnificent view of Rome, of the Colosseum and the adjacent Forum Romanum.

This was when I learned that Italians do live up to one other cliché: They don’t form queues, they cluster – the one that buys a ticket first is not necessarily the one that also gets in first, as I experienced firsthand when trying to get into the elevator up the Typewriter. Here, two entire school classes arrived after me at the ticket office but were up on the roof some twenty minutes before I was.

By now it was afternoon, and I began to unwind. A sense of serenity had started to settle over me and I got accustomed to the Italian way of life.

All along the way, I sampled different restaurants, here an antipasto, there a scoop of gelato, I slipped into small side streets and followed the Italians to see where they were going. Apart from the luxury labels that can be found all over town there are hundreds of small boutiques and charming stores in remote corners that might not be obvious at first. Letting myself flow through Rome surprised me with many small secrets, peaceful little coffee bars away from the tourist routes, and I discovered a part of Italy that I instantly came to love and to which I hope soon to return.

In the days of the Empire, it was said, "All roads lead to Rome" – and at least for me, I suspect this won’t be far off. There are so many other places and small treasures left to discover. Rome is a modern city wearing its ancient embroidery only half hidden in the folds of its gown, seducing the traveler to look more closely, and with every visit, to trace anew the shimmering threads of a living past.


Restaurant and hotel suggestions:

Pizzaria alle Carrette

Via della Madonna dei Monti, 95

Tel. +39.06.6792770


Giolitti al Vicario (ice cream)

Via Uffici del Vicario, 40

Tel. +39.06.6991243



La Friseria

Via del Vignola, 1/Angolo Via Flaminia

Tel. +39.06.3219204



Hotel Astrid

Largo Antonio Sarti, 4

00196 Roma

Tel. + 30.06.3236371



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